From Gael Hannan: This week’s blog is an interesting and emotional reflection written for a class assignment by Jacqueline Arsenault, a Speech-Language Pathology Masters student at the University of Toronto. It was partly inspired by my workshop on bluffing, The Masks of Hearing Loss (Bluffing 101), which I had presented to her Aural Rehabilitation class, a course taught by my friend Dr. Joanne Deluzio. This heartfelt and pain-filled reflection is a common scenario in families affected by hearing loss, and I’m grateful to Jacqueline for her courage in sharing this story of her family.
Am I Responsible for My Mother-in-Law’s Communication?
By Jacqueline Arsenault
My mother-in-law has hearing loss. Either at birth or from a young age, she had total deafness in her right ear and hearing loss in her left ear. The hearing in her left ear progressively worsened to a profound sensorineural hearing loss and, four years ago, she made the difficult decision to get a cochlear implant (the right ear was not eligible for implantation).
I have a confession to make, though. My mother-in-law frustrates me. She upsets me and she angers me.
My mother-in-law peeves me when she bangs cupboards and dishes and doors. This was especially exasperating when I was trying to get my babies to sleep. Their eyes would finally close, and then, BANG! She irks me when she doesn’t laugh when I display my brilliant sense of humor. She doesn’t even smile.
Now, I finally understand that she doesn’t do these things because she’s a cruel woman. I now know this is all linked to her hearing loss. I realize now that she can’t hear those banging sounds. And humor is difficult to grasp when you can’t hear all the words, sounds, nuances, and social cues.
But what frustrates me the most is that our relationship is stifled by her bluffing, that she looks away when I am talking to her, and that she looks to her husband immediately for clarification if she doesn’t understand me. We live 7½ hours apart and yet, when we are visiting together, she invariably closes herself off from us by picking up a book rather than trying to talk with the family.
It is upsetting that she no longer attends church, weddings, or larger family gatherings because she can’t understand the priest, she can’t talk to anyone, and she can’t enjoy the music.
What about trying an FM system? What about reconnecting with loved ones that are rarely seen? What about finding different ways to communicate – with pen and paper or technology? She often talks about others and how baffled she is that “everyone knows that I have hearing loss, but no one changes anything or helps me.” My husband and I try to sympathize, but also tell her she needs to remind people, tell them how to communicate differently with her. She needs to advocate for herself. It’s terrible that this is an ongoing effort for her, but her disability is not obvious to everyone, and it is not at the top of everyone’s mind. When people talk to her, they can’t always be sure that she has heard them, or that she cares to hear what they have to say.
We absolutely should be aware of how we communicate when we are with her, but is it our job to always check that she has understood us? I don’t think so; she needs to help us too.
I am also saddened that her husband deprives himself of traveling, or going on hunting or fishing trips because my mother-in-law is so dependent on him. She simply can’t be alone for any length of time. It might be possible for him to go away sometimes if the house were equipped with a Shake-Awake (vibrating alarm clock), a visual smoke/CO2 alarm, and a means for her to use the telephone. My husband and I have talked to his parents about installing these devices and perhaps using a TTY service. They feign interest and vaguely say that they will look into it. It’s devastating. And worrisome. And maddening. What could be more important than taking advantage of these life-saving technologies?
While I’m ashamed that I am not more sympathetic to her self-pity, it’s also hurtful when she says that the only people who “get her” are her daughter-in-law (the other one) and her niece-in-law. It is heartbreaking that despite being told by her doctors that the cochlear implant would not enable her to have typical hearing, she is disappointed that the operation wasn’t a miracle for her, as it had been for other recipients she talked to. She was told her hearing would likely improve with a cochlear implant, and it did. But the implant causes her discomfort, she hears echoing sounds, music has lost all meaning for her, and she doesn’t have that “golden ring” of natural hearing.
I sincerely feel badly that the outcome wasn’t what she wished for. It is sad when she asks us to pray that her cochlear implant will miraculously get better. I tell her that I will pray for her, but I will also pray that she embraces the improvement in hearing that the implant has given her, and that she finds a way to cope and work through all of the difficulties.
I wonder how different my connection with my mother-in-law would be if I had been better educated on hearing loss and how to communicate better with those with hearing loss when I was younger. I love my mother-in-law, and I hope to have a meaningful and deep relationship with her someday. I hope she will help me, and others, to communicate better with her. I hope that she will recognize all the positives in her life, instead of concentrating on what she doesn’t have.
During a talk the other day, Gael Hannan said something that really struck me: “Some people let hearing loss define them.” I see this in my mother-in-law, and I hope that she can break out of it and participate more fully in life.